'Body': a lively tale of narcissistic fixation

November 18, 1990|By BOB ALLEN

Body: a Tragicomedy.

Harry Crews.

Poseidon.

240 pages. $18.95. In his 11th novel, Harry Crews has written a rollicking yet tightly constructed and delightfully erotic comedy about those sweaty, protein-packing, muscle fetishists who turn their narcissistic obsession with body sculpting into world-class dreams. Or, in the case of Mr. Crews' characters, world-class nightmares.

More than just a sleek tale of starvation, dehydration and pain-and-gain-and-glory iron-pumping, "Body," with its outlandish cast of characters, is also a tale of clashing priorities and a subtle commentary on the horrible toll that overweening obsession with winning -- or with anything -- can sometimes bring down upon even the most sincere.

The pivotal figure in "Body" is Dorothy Turnipseed. A young, attractive, wayward country girl from Waycross, Ga., Dorothy applies for a secretarial job at Morgan's Emporium of Pain. Instead of filing papers, she ends up as putty in the hands of iron-fisted trainer Russell "Muscle" Morgan. In a matter of months, Morgan has seemingly remade Dorothy, body and soul: transformed her from a dumpy, feckless Georgia redneck into a cool, urbane, perfectly proportioned 124-pound world-class female hunk, whom, for professional reasons, he renames Shereel Dupont.

Matters come to an uneasy head when Morgan enters Shereel in the world champion "Ms. Cosmos" contest, only to have her white-trash past, in the form of her immediate family, the Turnipseed clan from Waycross, show up to haunt her.

And what a quintessentially clay-eating crew these Turnipseeds are! They are, in fact, everything that Morgan has taught Shereel not to be: a clan of pot-bellied, junk food-eating, Camel-smoking, whiskey-swilling hayseeds. The men sport look-alike, two-for-$99 J. C. Penney suits and the women are 200-pound-plus specimens of carbohydrate-drenched, protoplasmic overindulgence.

The only real bad seed in the bunch is Nail Head, Shereel's Vietnam veteran fiance. Nail is a glowering, knife-toting cracker whose natural tendency toward meanness and misanthropy has been warped into homicidal proportions by his tour of duty in combat.

The tension builds as the countdown for the Ms. Cosmos finals begins. We realize that for Shereel and her trainer, it's far more than a mere competition; they've staked their entire future on the outcome. And Nail (who defies credibility as the fiance of a woman as disciplined and self-reliant as Shereel) hovers around backstage, cleaning his fingernails with a switchblade, seemingly bent on disruption of some kind.

As a comedy, "Body" rolls along nicely, right up until the very last pages, although the characters, particularly the Turnipseeds, are so overdrawn as to verge on caricature, and the fatal attraction between Shereel and the repulsive Nail is never clearly defined.

Then, in the final countdown, Mr. Crews muscles in a surprise, left-field ending that suddenly tips the comic scale into dark tragedy, and somehow leaves the reader feeling that the author has tacked the wrong ending on the right book.

Mr. Allen is a writer living in Eldersburg.

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